Women's equality can improve economic performance, economist tells the UN

UNITED NATIONS - Equality between the sexes can have a real world economic effect, potentially improving the economic performance of nations and corporations.

That was among the ideas offered by noted economist Augusto Lopez-Claros, speaking in February at the United Nations on behalf of the Bahá'í International Community.

Dr. Lopez-Claros, director of the Global Competitiveness Report 2006/2007 at the World Economic Forum, addressed the UN Commission on the Status of Women at a High-Level Roundtable on "Financing for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women" on 25 February 2008.

"The efficient operation of our increasingly knowledge-based economy is not only a function of adequate levels of available finance, a reasonably open trade regime for goods and services, but, more and more, is also dependent on our ability to tap into a society's reservoir of talents and skills," said Dr. Lopez-Claros.

"When, because of tradition, a misunderstanding of the purpose of religion, social taboos or plain prejudices, half (the) ... population is prevented from making its contribution to the life of a nation, the economy will suffer."

Dr. Lopez-Claros was one of some 40 Bahá'í delegates to the meeting of the Commission, which ran this year from 25 February to 7 March.

This year's focus on money was reflected in the Commission's outcome document, which stressed the importance of matching verbal commitments with financial resources in the global effort to advance the equality of women with men.

After reaffirming the various commitments to providing adequate financial resources, the Commission said several areas require special attention, including "the growing feminization of poverty," "lingering negative consequences, including for women, of structural adjustment programs," and "the under-resourcing in the area of gender equality in the United Nations system."

"The Commission states that the global commitments for the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of women since the Fourth World Conference on Women, including through the Monterrey Consensus, have yet to be fully implemented," said the outcome document.

The Bahá'í International Community (BIC) addressed issues related to financing and the advancement of women during the Commission by organizing or co-sponsoring a number of side events, issuing a statement, and holding face-to-face discussions with delegates.

"One of our goals was to bring forward a perspective that the lack of financial resources for women's advancement in the world stems in part because of traditional beliefs and cultural practices that make women less visible in the decision-making structures of governments and businesses," said Fulya Vekiloglu, a BIC representative to the UN.

In particular, Ms. Vekiloglu noted, the BIC issued a statement to the Commission that addressed the cultural and religious dimensions of the gender gap, connecting gender disparities to issues of financing.

The statement, "Mobilizing Institutional, Legal and Cultural Resources to Achieve Gender Equality," recommended the adoption of a long-term perspective to guide short and medium-term efforts to finance gender equality, the use of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to evaluate national budgets, and the engagement of religious perspectives and institutions.

"Too often, policy makers have been resistant to addressing the cultural and religious dimensions of attitudes governing the treatment of women - fearing the potentially divisive nature of such an undertaking or lacking knowledge about whom to address and how to proceed," the statement said. "Yet the achievement of gender equality has been painstakingly slow precisely because questions about the roles and responsibilities of women challenge some of the most deeply entrenched human attitudes. Given the tremendous capacity of religion to influence the masses - both to inspire and to vilify - governments cannot afford to turn a blind eye."

Side events organized or co-sponsored by the BIC during the Commission included:

  • "Empowering Women through Meaningful Work," a panel discussion that examined the various motivations women have for playing an active role in the workplace, aside from answering basic needs. The panelists also looked at the effects that discrimination has not only on women themselves but also on their families and communities. It was co-sponsored with the European Bahá'í Business Forum (EBBF) and the UK National Committee of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM-UK).
  • "Business Empowers Women? Who Adapts to Whom?," a workshop co-sponsored with the EBBF that featured business leaders from different sectors and different countries who discussed the situation for women in business in their countries.
  • "Global Issues, Local Voices: the Role of NGOs in Building Sustainable Capacity," a meeting that considered ways that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be influential in holding governments accountable for the international agreements they commit to at the United Nations. The event was supported by FATIMA Women's Network, the National Alliance of Women's Organizations, and UNIFEM-UK.

Importance of the girl child

"In Beijing, three words changed the lives of millions of people," said Zarin Hainsworth, director of UNIFEM-UK, at that workshop, discussing the impact of international agreements. "Those three words - the girl child - changed our ability to work for the special needs of girls."

Ms. Vekiloglu, who is co-chair of the Working Group on Girls of the NGO Committee on UNICEF, also addressed the 25 February High-Level Roundtable. She likewise stressed the importance of girls.

She urged the commission to make a greater effort to promote social policies that protect, empower, and "invest in" girls at the national and local levels.

"Investments in girls have amazing cascading benefits," said Ms. Vekiloglu. "When girls are healthy, well-educated and empowered to contribute to their families and societies, we all benefit."

She also urged the commission to promote policies that would help provide better data about women and girls.

"In too many places and at too many times, girls continue to be invisible, lumped together with women by some and with children by others," said Ms. Vekiloglu. "Gender equality and women's empowerment cannot be accomplished unless we adopt a life-cycle approach to this critical issue. Unless we ensure the visibility of girls, we can never guarantee women's rights."